Author Brad Deutser: Five Things Business Leaders Can Do To Create A Fantastic Work Culture

Authority Magazine Editorial Staff
Authority Magazine
Published in
15 min readAug 9, 2023

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We must embrace belonging at the heart of the cultural ecosystem. We create clear ecosystems that define and connect the cultural elements of an organization. In these ecosystems, we place belonging at the center. It is the heart of the organization and the connective tissue that holds together the values and behavioral competencies that define the DNA and guide the company’s actions.

As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brad Deutser.

Brad Deutser is the president and CEO of management consulting firm, Deutser. He is also an executive coach and will be publishing his book BELONGING RULES: Five Crucial Actions That Build Unity and Foster Performance in September.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

From my earliest work experiences with Ringling Bros & Barnum and Bailey Circus to working for an all-female company as the token male, I grew to understand the impact of difference inside companies. At the circus, it was the different performers from all over the world, each with a distinct talent showcased simultaneously in the three rings. At the other company, it was me who was different, and I had to work to find my place in their unique organization that was “by women, for women, for women’s advancement.” In each environment, I was forced to learn about myself as a human and a leader. I loved both experiences and they gave me a deep passion for studying and working through difference in organizations all over the country and globe. In many ways, my work, and the challenges I was faced with in each opportunity have fueled my commitment to bringing people together, by reimagining spaces and creating experiences for all to belong.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

It seems like every week there is a new “most interesting story” about my company. Afterall, people come to us with some of the most challenging as well as socially and politically divisive issues they need our help with. Often, they start in our “Willy Wonka-Land for Leaders” themed learning lab — these spaces are so unique and self-perception-shattering that they expose an unusual level of vulnerability and raw emotion. So, I could pick one of the top 5 largest consulting firms coming to us to rethink their culture or a vitriolic merger between two companies, who characterized their differences as “one Mormon led, and the other Muslim led.” We were successful in both, and both were more than interesting. But one of the most life changing stories came post-George Floyd’s murder when a university was divided over historic decisions and elements of its culture. I was chosen to be the eyes and ears of the president, who just wanted to listen to the raw emotion and genuine perspectives of a diverse ecosystem of constituents. It led to me interviewing and meeting with more than 3500 people. Through their unfiltered sharing, I learned that sometimes it is not what we do to solve a problem, but what we do by going into the heart of the problem. In this situation, listening and understanding more than three thousand people, many of whom pointed to me and said, “You don’t belong here”, became a transformational moment in the history of the university, and to me. I learned that sometimes people want to share and need to be heard — we need to listen without attaching any labels to what they say, feel, and think. And, from this project, it was reinforced that in any environment, as humans, we don’t have to agree to belong. Life changing!

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Every day I have the honor to work in environments where we can see an immediate return. It can be in our work on safety — where we see huge changes in workforces with our unique human approach to ensure people go home safely every day. It is in our coaching work — where we work with leaders to become more human centered and vulnerable, thus creating spaces for others to excel. It is on the football field — where we work with athletes to elevate not only their performance but genuinely understand and evolve their leadership. It is in our research — where we study the impact of belonging on the modern workforce and how leaders can begin to change their approach to be more inviting of difference inside their organizations and communities. So much of our work has led to the creation of multiple unique leadership learning labs around the country and the Institute for Belonging. We are expanding our research and work to bring people together. The isolation people feel is real — and we are working to offer change and hope in this space. The institute will invite researchers and thought leaders around the country to join in the study — all for one purpose — to provide an inviting, safe space for people to understand difference and be understood for their difference. We have created unique teachings and learning modalities to open the mind for the most uncomfortable conversations. We are creating spaces and experiences for people to be heard, respected, and invited into an open exchange where all can be embraced. Our hope is that through this work and these spaces we will bring people together to explore what we have in common and celebrate how we are different.

Ok, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

People feel isolated. They are overloaded with negativity. They are lonely. They are searching for connection — not just at work, but in their lives. I call this phenomenon the “Great Disconnect” — and it is impacting not only the workforce but the leaders who lead them. People are searching for more — even when they cannot name it. My team of organizational psychologists, social scientists and PhDs have studied this for years — and produced significant research on the topic of belonging, especially in the workforce. The disconnect from not only the company, but the work and the identity of the organization is rampant. The workforce is watching leaders address change and societal issues within their companies by circumventing the real issues and not turning headfirst into the issues that are all too real. Those in the middle searching for stability and strong leadership are disappointed by risk-averse leadership who often appeases the extremes at the expense of the core or “moveable middle” of the workforce. They experience leaders who are not working to understand the real needs and psyche of the workforce, instead distilling complex issues into overly simplistic labels or initiatives that miss the mark and leave employees wanting and needing more or something altogether different. They are watching leaders lead with 80% of the truth, not willing to broach the 20% of the issues that are likely at the heart of the disconnect. These same issues often are the tough, divisive issues. But by not addressing them, leaders are leaving the workforce on the outside looking in. The fact that employees feel disconnected is often not accidental, even if it is unintentional. Leaders must begin the reconnection with the heart and soul of the employee. This starts with rethinking organizational identity, which includes purpose, values, characteristics, and desired behaviors. When the identity is clear, well defined and inviting, the workforce has a solid connection point — and an invitation to again self-select back in to belong.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Too many companies are using outdated reasoning relying on cultural constructs that may have been effective in the past, but no longer nurture the necessary human connection that people crave. There has been a seismic shift in what the workforce needs from and at work. By reconnecting with the core of what is enduring about our organization DNA, while modernizing our thinking and approaches, leaders can eliminate unnecessary conflict and encourage newfound positivity, effective challenge, creativity, openness, and perhaps most important, clarity. When leaders are intentional with their identity and create spaces to support belonging, not only will it change performance, but it also impacts psychological safety, happiness, retention and the health, safety, and well-being of the individual employee. Our studies show that when employees are part of a vibrant environment that prioritizes belonging, not only will they remain at the company, but they will also consider less salary to do so.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

  1. Prioritize people.
  2. Set cultural and behavioral expectations.
  3. Be vulnerable and intentionally human.
  4. Rethink connection and space.
  5. Implement the Belonging Rules.

In many ways, leaders must put themselves back in the shoes of themselves years ago. What did we value when we were in a different place — and what were we not provided with that we need to grow and perform? We must return to the basics of communication and being connected. We must be willing to lead by setting expectations and holding people accountable to live up to them. And we must be open and willing to tackle the difficult issues and conversations — even if people disagree with the outcome. Creating the environment for these discussions and inviting people inside makes us all better as individuals, teams, and organizations.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

Humans, even leaders are fearful of change, even though so much about the workplace is broken and needs change. One of the things I tell leaders is that “you have one choice: you can change the people, or you can change the people.” This is at the core of evolving the broader US workforce culture — leaders must create the space for people to grow and evolve by coaching, developing, and mentoring them, and inspire them to aspire for something more in their companies. There are other major cultural changes society needs to consider including:

  1. We must eliminate the unachievable concept of work life balance. It isn’t real. Tech makes this illusion impossible to create as do the demands of work. For each person, this looks different and must be understood by leaders. I approach this new way to think about balance through three clocks: time for self, time for others, time for work. The 8-hour workday is behind us, so too is the 40-hour week. We need to begin to recalibrate how we think about each clock and how it impacts our individual and collective wellbeing.
  2. We must set clear expectations and hold people accountable. Clear expectations give people a beacon to follow and give leaders the support necessary to hold people accountable to the behavioral and cultural expectations we put forth in our organizations.
  3. We must commit to human-centered leadership. This means developing our abilities to empathize and remain compassionate towards others. It means inviting people in, welcoming differences, and seeing across the lines that so often divide us. As Warren Buffett shared in a project, we were working on years ago, he said that he always writes his annual letter to shareholders by addressing it first to his sister. Then, he changes her name out to shareholders. This is an easy way to create a more human connection.
  4. We must invite people back into rethought spaces that nudge new intentional connections. Space must be prioritized. It is not a fixed sunk cost, rather, an opportunity for creative collaborations, thoughtful dialogue, and meaningful human interactions that drive innovation.
  5. We must embrace belonging at the heart of the cultural ecosystem. We create clear ecosystems that define and connect the cultural elements of an organization. In these ecosystems, we place belonging at the center. It is the heart of the organization and the connective tissue that holds together the values and behavioral competencies that define the DNA and guide the company’s actions.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

My leadership style is defined by a few concepts that I preach and work to live every day. So much of my style starts with my belief in people, my desire to create spaces for belonging, and my attitudinal set point on Positivity. I embrace the energy positivity generates for me and others — and I define it as mindful, inspirational, happy, optimistic, and grateful. I engage in each of these every single day. I trust people and believe in the human capacity for greatness. I believe every person is born to be the leader of one — themselves. And I work to elevate their leadership and capacity for connection. I am a human-centered leader, one who empowers and challenges and works to create connections of all kinds. My commitment shows in the most creative aspects of how we enhance human connection through intentional collisions, purposeful interactions, and creative experiences. At my core, I love to help, love to give back, and love to share. It is why I am always vulnerable and exposed to all who work with me. In my full acknowledgments of being human, I am in so many ways like everyone else that I work with — and that is someone who wants to belong. It is my great honor to create spaces in which all can belong.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am blessed with the opportunity to work with and coach magnificent leaders and human beings every day. I learn from and am inspired by them daily. The issues today’s leaders face and must address in real time is inspiring. Each of them is part of my “leadership tether” which are my collection of experiences from as early as I can remember. This tether holds all the people and experiences together and helps me understand who I am as a leader, as well as how I got here and how I continue to evolve. When I start my tether, it is impossible not to first think about my parents — their work ethic, their commitment to right, their ability to overcome hardship after hardship and their unwavering belief in their family which drives me every day. But there are others, like my mentor, Bert Margolis. Bert owned a summer camp I was part of for 15 years. He reinforced the values of my parents, and he demanded excellence in all things. He believed in people, and especially me, even when I didn’t know to believe in myself. I was selected to be the star of a theatrical performance. I played a role that was diametrically opposite of me, pushing me way beyond my comfort level and personal character. Two nights before the opening of the show, I was still awake at 2:00 am trying to get the dance steps and body gyrations just right. Heavy in concentration, I looked up and at the back of the 100-year-old theatre, I saw Bert — watching and smiling with a look of immense pride and approval — never saying a word, only giving a thumbs up as he disappeared into darkness. I did not know that the next morning he called my parents and told them about my transformation on stage. What I did know was on July 28, 1980, that my life changed — because in that moment, I saw myself differently. And, while it has evolved over the years, my core belief in and love of myself has never wavered (even if it has at times of challenge been shaken).

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My goal is to always give back. It is why everything we do is built around a service and servant mindset. I think of giving as a way of being, to lift up someone in need, to help people see a future that they struggle to see. I believe in the power of changing the world one person at a time. It is why I write and share. It is why I step in and step up — I want to give people the chance to think about how they can change and in turn, change the world around them. My book, Belonging Rules, it is about recalibrating how leaders lead in a complicated and disconnected world. It gives them tools and shows how we can create spaces that invite people inside, instead of leaving them out. I believe in the exponential power of belonging and this is one way I try to bring good to the world. There are so many others — starting with our clients, especially the countless projects in the non-profit community, that drain our physical resources, but fill our cups and change our perspectives of how to help and create a different future. We give our services, our time, our passion, and our expertise to bring change where needed. We have established a 501c3 foundation whereby each employee has their own named fund, funded by the company annually for them to donate and make whatever change in the world or in the community that is important to them. It is our recognition that there is so much need and so many diverse thoughts and approaches on how best to address it. It is why we trust our people to make their own choice on how best to change our world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There are two. First, from Dr. Suess: “Oh the places you will go…” If we do not allow ourselves to dream and imagine, it is hard to lead and impossible to move forward. I am a dreamer and even in my wildest dreams I would never have imagined the places my work has taken me (not necessarily through travel) and the people I have encountered who have in turn changed my perspective and life.

The other is from Wes Moore, best-selling author of The Other Wes Moore, motivational speaker and now governor of Maryland: “We are not products of our environment. We are products of our expectations.” While a huge part of my business is to design and implement the most healthy work environments, I understand that real power lies in our ability as leaders to set the expectations for our people and trust that they will live up to them. In fact, in many ways, this defines the environment. We do this by setting the cultural expectation of the company — with a clear purpose and vision, with defined values, characteristics, and importantly, behavioral competencies that let everyone know what is expected from a human standpoint. By creating a well-defined cultural ecosystem with connected cultural elements, leaders create the expectation that defines the environment.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

My movement is belonging. I have dedicated my work and research to understanding this most basic human need. I want to use our work and teachings in Belonging Rules to begin to break down barriers and create spaces where we can talk and come together. I want people to again see that difference is, in fact, power and that as one of my clients and mentors said, “we don’t have to agree to belong.” I want people to see and bask in the beauty of what we have in common simply as human beings. And remind people, as we did with a campaign we developed for Holocaust Museum Houston, “It’s hard to hate up close.” I want to remind people and give leaders tools to reinsert emotion, love, and connection in the workplace. I want to challenge the ‘truth of the day’ and replace it with the truth. I want people to come together unafraid of difficulty in a subject, simply to share perspective and be open to someone else’s. I want to empower the moveable middle of our companies and country with information and trust them to lead us forward. I want to leverage the belonging rules to change the way leaders lead and give hope to the workforce of the future that even through challenge, difficulty, and discomfort, the human spirit can and will always prevail. That no one is alone. That any one of us can reach across to help or to be helped. All of this is at the core of belonging and it is the movement I want to help facilitate.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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